I am casting all objectivity aside for this one. Let’s face it, Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary is Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah all rolled together into one for me. It’s also my own personal 29th anniversary as a fan — I once figured out that the night I first watched Part One of Time-Flight on PBS as an impressionable 11 year-old boy was November 23, 1984. Nothing was going to spoil my mood this day.
Later tonight I’ll be watching Episode 4 of The Smugglers and the Loose Cannon extras for that story. For the anniversary celebration proper, though, I obviously needed something a little more epic. After all, last year I had “celebrated” by reading the 40th anniversary novel, Deadly Reunion, which was both a roman-a-clef about Barry Letts’ war years, and Terrance Dicks doing a combination pastiche/send-up/homage of his work during the Pertwee/Delgado/UNIT era. It wouldn’t take much for this year’s anniversary to be better than last year’s.
This afternoon I attended the DWNY-sponsored event at Stone Creek Lounge in Kips Bay, for a double-bill of An Adventure In Space And Time, the docudrama about Doctor Who‘s origins and turbulent early years, and then the actual 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. It’s impossible to be analytical about either of these, so about all I can give you are my initial emotional impressions. There are also the germs of some thoughts I had about the specials’ quality that may, in time, become full-on critical reviews. But not here, not tonight.
My original intent was to not watch Adventure right away, but to save it for Thanksgiving Day — the day after I get to Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet, as a way of summing up/recapping William Hartnell’s time on the show. But watching the docudrama in a room full of 50-60 Doctor Who fans, all reacting loudly and enthusiastically, may well be the best way to watch it (but I’ll still play it again next week and do a proper write-up then). Meanwhile, Day of the Doctor is review-proof, of course, in the same way that people who complain about The Five Doctors aren’t fans, just haters.
An Adventure In Space And Time was the culmination of writer Mark Gatiss’ long-time dream to chronicle the creation and early years of Doctor Who. I’m not using even the slightest bit of hyperbole when I say there was not a dry eye in the house when the movie finished, and, because we were in the back room of a bar, the screening was followed by a round of hearty toasts.
The film opens with William Hartnell driving to work on his final day of production — October 8, 1966, the day he videotaped Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet, and the first regeneration scene (though, of course, it wasn’t called “regeneration” at the time). During a quiet moment on the TARDIS set, he flashes back to the previous 3 years, in a nifty time-travel effect; the TARDIS console prop’s “Year-ometer” is our guide for this journey.
The flashbacks actually tell the story of four people: Hartnell, a grumpy actor fearing that his career has dead-ended; Sydney Newman, the brash, outspoken, Jewish Canadian who invented the concept for the show; Verity Lambert, the 20-something Jewish female BBC producer (a string of words that had never all been put together in the same sentence before); and Waris Hussein, the 20-something Indian director. The BBC in general had little interest in the program, gave it vanishingly few resources, and the fact that it became the phenomenon that it did, is one of history’s little jokes. Lambert and Hussein’s aspirations and motivations — and Hartnell’s warming up to the role both on-camera and off — are the real stars of the first hour of the film.
The script contains thousands of little “kisses to the past”, complete with the opening shot of a police box on Barnes Common (familiar to anyone who read the novelization of The Daleks), and with scenes re-enacted from (I lost count at) nine of Hartnell’s 29 serials. These mock-ups are nearly screen-image perfect, and cameos from four of the actors playing Hartnell’s companions are nicely peppered throughout the rest of the film.
Both Hussein and Lambert left the series within two years, to pursue bigger and better things, so the final 30 minutes covers the end of Hartnell’s time on the show. This is where it’s advisable to have three or four boxes of tissues handy. The script does not go round-for-round following the events of Season 3 — we meet no producers or directors from that era, even after Douglas Camfield, Richard Martin and Mervyn Pinfield all have fairly meaty roles early on. But Hartnell’s famous monologue from the end of The Massacre is used as an efficiently compacted summation of that era — a man alone with all his friends and supporters gone; the disembodied voices from up in the gallery can’t get his name right, the set PAs don’t know how to operate the TARDIS console, and illness prevented him from remembering his lines. This scene involves heavy dramatic license, but since Gatiss wasn’t writing an 8-hour miniseries, this was the best way to condense Hartnell’s 1965/1966 blues into a single scene… of course, since that scene was also one of Hartnell’s greatest moments, it is a bit odd to choose it to illustrate the moment where it all fell apart.
Hartnell’s increasing alienation from the show is best illustrated by recreations of the photocalls with Season 3’s revolving door’s worth of companions. By the time he’s posing with Steven & Dodo, or Ben & Polly, actor David Bradley conveys a star who’s completely divorced from his surroundings. The moment where Hartnell is fired draw gasps from the audience I was with (although that moment is surely heavily fictionalized). The regeneration scene, however, was not played the way I was expecting. When news leaked of Matt Smith’s cameo, I just assumed that he’d be playing Troughton. The production does something quite different with Smith — and a bit mawkish, perhaps — but, again, this is a docudrama, and the moment Bradley does share with Smith is, again… well, where’d that box of tissues get to?
After Adventures, I wasn’t sure I’d have the emotional energy left for Day of the Doctor. However, the 50th anniversary special opens with… the Hartnell opening titles! (well, sort of… you won’t see the words DOCTOR OHO half-formed on screen), followed by a police constable walking past a Totter’s Yard sign, followed by a shot of Coal Hill School with the names “Ian Chesterton” and “W. Coburn” displayed on a sign. You could have stopped the tape at that point, and I’d have been thrilled.
The episode itself sort of treads Five Doctors territory, although the script lacks the perfect pacing and progression of Terrance Dicks’ 1983 script. Essentially, this is (at long last), the story of how the Time War happened, and we finally learn (as was suggested by the sublime Night of the Doctor minisode) that it was John Hurt, not Paul McGann or Christopher Eccleston, who committed the deed that A) ended the War and B) left visible scar marks on Doctors Nine, Ten and Eleven. There are Zygons in it, and some Daleks during the War flashbacks too, and the Brigadier’s daughter (back after The Power of Three), and Clara of course, and Billie Piper as a Rose simulacrum who interacts onlywith Hurt. But the three Doctors are the heart of the story.
There is not a whole lot of tragedy. I would have preferred to see how the Time War unfolded but, especially for a 50th anniversary love-in, Moffat was wise (I suppose) to show us only the War’s last day, and its emotional fall-out, rather than a series of increasingly downbeat battles, gambits, and maneuvers. The Last Day minisode, with its working-class accented Gallifreyan soldiers serving as Dalek cannon fodder, will have to serve that purpose. Instead, we get a lot of hearts-to-hearts chats between Hurt, Smith and Tennant; the three actors clearly relish this material, and Hurt’s Doctor slots in so well that he doesn’t feel like an interloper at all… quite the opposite, in fact.
I’ve been skimming recently through The Ancestor Cell, the Eight Doctor novel published in the year 2000, which shows how the Wilderness Years’ books handled the Doctor’s destroying Gallifrey (during another Time War, with a different Enemy). That book, while having its moments, is completely unfilmable, especially for the modern day Doctor Who audience that needs laughter with its tears (to get “hit in the feels”, as the kids say these days). Moffat wisely uses this special to rehabilitate the Hurt Doctor and provide a more optimistic ending to the Time War. How this changes continuity with the Russell T. Davies-era stories Dalek and The End of Time, I know not, but I suspect we’ll find out soon.
But, even with all the nods to the Classic Series (i.e. the entire first two minutes, and the Time Lord costumes during the War flashbacks, and the tantalizingly fleeting glimpse of the John Hurt Doctor’s TARDIS), the most killer moment was… oh, wait, some SPOILER SPACE first, in case you haven’t seen the special, or read the numerous on-line leaks:
Tom Baker is back, baby! He’s quite clearly meant to be playing an aged version of the Fourth Doctor — and yet, paradoxically, is still in Matt Smith’s Doctor’s future (something is said about wearing many more faces and “going back to old favorites”). Baker has not played the role on TV for 32 years (although he’s been recreating the part for Doctor Who audios for a long while now), but has not lost a split-second of timing, or any of his old Doctor-ish-ness. Matt Smith, whose interpretation of the Doctor sometimes borders on the histrionic, quite wisely underplays his side of the meeting, instead conveying quiet, and happy, hero-worship. It’s a lovely moment on both sides and, even if the previous interactions between Smith, Tennant and Hurt had left you dry-eyed, this scene won’t. Tom Baker steals the show. Utterly, utterly steals the show.
Now, excuse me, where did I put that box of tissues?